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Gender Roles in The Odyssey and O Brother Where Art Thou?

Updated on May 14, 2017

Feminine and masculine roles within literature evolve in compliance to contextual views, as contrastingly shown in Homer’s epic, The Odyssey[1] and the Coen Brother’s film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?[2] Male characters embody popular political views and criticisms within the texts’ context. Socio-political expectations and limitations play a vital role in shaping Penelope and Penny’s characterisations. Fundamental elements of Odysseus’ characterization is adapted to suit different contextual influences and story patterns. Ultimately, it is inevitable that context plays a significant role in changing female and male representations due to the impact it has on story patterns.

[1] Homer, “The Odyssey”

[2] O Brother, Where Art Thou. Directed by Joel Coen. Produced by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. France: Succes, 2001. DVD.

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The Odyssey and O Brother, Where Art Thou? demonstrates how male roles change with evolving political and social values. The Odyssey utilises male protagonists to make a commentary traditional values of focalizing a member of the aristocracy position, whilst O Brother, Where Art Thou? questions the political climate of America’s Great Depression (1926-39.) Academic Patrick J. Deneen argues that “Odysseus was as much as an unwitting character of his own culture as Homer…”[1] Deneen’s emphasis on culture suggests that political influences played a prominent role in constructing Odysseus’ character. This is since The Odyssey was produced in the Dark Ages (1100-750 B.C.)[2] the ideology of heroism is attributed to the dominant class; the aristocracy. Heroic figures within Homeric poetry such as Odysseus and Achilles includes the male gender, birth into nobility, wealth, strength and skillfulness. The application of these attributes to male aristocrats suggests Homer’s perception of heroism held a socio-economic basis.

In the hands of Odysseus a bow is used to kill the suitors, and as he does so he reveals his true identity as Odysseus
In the hands of Odysseus a bow is used to kill the suitors, and as he does so he reveals his true identity as Odysseus | Source

Athena Giustiniani

Athena was the Greek Goddess of wisdom
Athena was the Greek Goddess of wisdom | Source

Consequently, The Odyssey utilises traditional techniques of focusing the nostos of the aristocracy without focusing on lower class members. Furthermore, Deneen’s argument is reinforced through the way religion was integral to Greek society. This is shown through how the divine intervention is normalised in The Odyssey. The connection between male aristocrats and Greek gods demonstrates how Odysseus is shaped by conservative influence. Odysseus inherits cunning qualities from Sisyphus and Autolycus while being supported by Athena, whose birth came from Zeus’ swallowing of cunning (metis).[3] This suggests that Homer intended for Odysseus’ heroicness to be an inevitable by his association with the Gods. Therefore, Odysseus’ characterization makes it is clear that male roles were shaped by mainstream political and social values within Greece’s Dark Ages, however despite differing storylines, O Brother, Where Art Thou? exhibits similar patterns.

[1] Patrick J. Deneen. The Odyssey of Political Theory: The Politics of Departure and Return. (page 31 para 3 line 4-6) Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000.

[2] History 643. “Greek Dark Age” (Paragraph: 1, Line: 3) Accessed May 1, 2016.

[3] Liam Semler, “The Odyssey (1)” Lecture, The University of Sydney, Sydney NSW, March 2, 2016


Alike The Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? exhibits the distinct influence of politics in application to the text’s creation, despite differing story patterns. The Odyssey creates a commentary on social values of heroism and religion in the aristocracy. Despite moving away from traditional narrative forms such as epics where aristocratic values are promoted, the film attributes political authority to male characters to comment on capitalism. Self-centered qualities are attributed to capitalist figures such as Pappy O’Daniel. This is illustrated through dialogue since Junior O’Daniel suggests, “We can hire our own midget, even shorter than his”[1] to counter Homer Stoke’s campaign. The words, “even shorter than his,” demonstrates the competitive nature of capitalism, as advocated through the desire to use humans for publicity. Through dehumanising midgets as tools for publicity and presenting the group through comedic dialogue, it ironizes mainstream beliefs that political parties are meant to work in the interest of the mass population and the seriousness of authority. This creates a contrast between the portrayal of aristocratic males within the Odyssey and O Brother, Where Art Thou? because Pappy is shown as a reinvented version of Menelaus. To provide a contrast, The Odyssey’s Menelaus is viewed as hospitable,[2] whilst Pappy is portrayed as self-motivated. This embodies the scepticism towards authority in the Modernist Period (1860s-1960s[3]) which was a reaction to socio-economic instability. Through challenging authority, the film caters to a middle-class audience rather than presenting conservative politics displayed in The Odyssey. It is clear that the Coen brothers instilled capitalist values in male figures such as “Pappy” to comment on the political landscape of 20th century America. Henceforth, the way male roles differ in The Odyssey and its adaptions accentuate the pivotal influence contextual values play in shaping characters and story patterns.

[1] O Brother, Where Art Thou? (17). Directed by Joel Coen. Produced by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. France: Succes, 2001. DVD.

[2] Homer, “The Odyssey,” (4.1-49)

[3] Online Literature. “Modernism” (paragraph: 1, line: 1-2) Accessed May 5, 2016.

Pappy in O Brother Where Art Thou?


O Brother Where Art Thou?

This is a scene showing Homer Stokes using objectifying a 'midget' to endorse his campaign
This is a scene showing Homer Stokes using objectifying a 'midget' to endorse his campaign | Source

A painting showing the practice of hospitality

Odysseus meets Nausicaa. 7426: Michele Desubleo 1602-1676: Ulisse e Nausica. Capodimonte Palace and National Gallery, Naples.
Odysseus meets Nausicaa. 7426: Michele Desubleo 1602-1676: Ulisse e Nausica. Capodimonte Palace and National Gallery, Naples. | Source


Cultural and social expectations play a fundamental role in shaping female characterizations in The Odyssey and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Academic Sue Blundell claims if the author is a male it is likely the creation of female characters in Ancient Greek writings is founded on his subjective views of what made a woman significant.[1] The way Penelope embodies Ancient Greek values of loyalty, hospitality and intelligence indicate that social values played a prominent impact on female characterisations.

For instance, despite the suitors’ disregard to the tradition of hospitality, Penelope did not have the political, familial and social capacity to force them out of her home.[2] The way Penelope was unable to force the suitors out of the house without Odysseus’ presence suggests that females were forced to take a more hospitable role than males in Greek culture. This is accentuated through the paradox of Odysseus’ idealising Penelope due to her qualities of hospitality and loyalty while he abuses these values. For example, Odysseus executes Penelope’s suitors for abusing hospitality whereas he abuses hospitality within the Cyclops’ home.[3]

Odysseus abusing the value of hospitality at the cyclops' home

 jordaens ulises en la cueva de polifemo 1630
jordaens ulises en la cueva de polifemo 1630

Instead, The Odyssey rewards Odysseus through as it is revealed through deus ex machina, Athena to stopped the potential attacks of the suitors’ families.[4] The lack of immediate or long-term consequence for Odysseus’ actions and the suitors’ ability to abuse Penelope’s hospitality suggests values of hospitality apply more heavily to females in comparison to male characters. In compliance with Blundell’s statement, this suggests that the author valued hospitality due to the importance it held in Greek culture.

Penelope in The Odyssey


Contrastingly, the way Penny was not restricted by the values of hospitality and loyalty reveals the significant impact context plays in reconstructing characters. For example, when engaging with Ulysses Penny exerts confidence through the demanding tone she sets through her voice when she argues Ulysses is not bonafide. The contrast of storyline details reflects differing social paradigms where women had more social mobility in who they can marry in the early 20th century causes Penny to adopt independent qualities in juxtaposition to the passivity Penelope displays in allowing the suitors to occupy her home. Thusly, the role social restrictions played in the development of Penny and Penelope’s characters accentuates the role context played in establishing male and females.

[1] Sandra Blundel, 1995, Ancient women in Greece, Harvard University Press pg. 11, para 1 lines 2-3

[2] Homer, “The Odyssey,” (2)

[3] Homer, “The Odyssey,” (6)

[4] Homer, “The Odyssey,” (24.533)

Penny in O Brother Where Art Thou?


Political restrictions within a text’s setting and context played a fundamental role in shaping female characters. Juxtapositions between the values embedded in Penny and Penelope’s characterisations comments on the difference between Ancient Greek and Western 20th-century societies. Values of intelligence and loyalty are advocated through how Penelope cunningly evades marriage since Antinous states she had misled marrying the suitors for four years, promising marriage to one of the suitors without the intention of marrying them.[1] Despite her deception, she is still accepted as a good wife since Penelope capitulates to highly regarded views of males in Greece’s Dark Ages. Penelope’s stereotypical character juxtaposes Penny’s independent character that is reworked as Penny to adopt to the circumstances of the Great Depression. Alike Penelope, Penny is forced to adopt a certain characterization due to the social, political and economic restrictions systematically held in early 20th America. During the Great Depression, most women would be inclined to marry in order to financially support their children, as further supported by the idea women, while according to Kathy MacMahon, making up 25% of the workforce, women retained unstable jobs since cultural views of “women don’t work” caused tension in trade unions, the workplace and allowed bosses to exploit them with higher pay gaps between females than their male counterpart.[2] These difficulties caused women to rely on male partners for financial income hence, Penny’s is shown to adapt to her situation for survival through remarriage. Despite Penny using the similar tactics for survival, she is portrayed negatively as the catalyst for the complications that Ulysses faces. Hence, context plays a fundamental role in the tactics Penelope and Penny for survival.

[1] Homer, “The Odyssey,” (2.68-79)

[2] Peak Oil Blues, “The Invisible Women of the Great Depression,” (Para 1 lines 1-5) accessed May 2, 2016.

The way context shapes female characters in comparison to male protagonists influence the way audience view certain characters. For example, the circumstances of the Great Depression forces Penny to adopt a stricter, practical character in juxtaposition to Penelope’s hospitality and loyalty. Nonetheless, the film suggests that since Penny adopted a role that is not dependent of Ulysses, she is viewed as selfish. For instance, theatre director Jon Ferreira explains that “We root for and sympathise with the characters we know best.[1]” This suggests that audiences are drawn to the plight of the protagonist as the film visualises the struggles that Ulysses encounters to reach his goal of becoming bonafide. Due to this, the audience empathises with the protagonist which automatically creates an overall negative tone towards the opposition Odysseus’ faces. This accounts for the negative connotation of Penny’s unfaithfulness since the audience is inclined to sympathise with the protagonist. This suggests that Penny’s limited screen time doesn’t allow the audience to know her character as well as Ulysses, consequently creating a detached view of her which creates room for negative perceptions of her. For instance, in the ending scene, the growing space between Penny and Ulysses’ bodies when walking symbolises the detached nature of the couple. Penny’s refusal to accept the ring despite the complications Ulysses faced to get it draws on the audience’s sympathy and creates resentment for Penny’s character. This contrasts with Odysseus’ characterization since despite his infidelity he is glorified within The Odyssey. However, when Penny adopts similar qualities and story patterns to Odysseus such as disloyalty she is viewed negatively due to the lacking the sympathetic element that Ferrier describes is attributed towards protagonists. Nonetheless, Penelope is regarded as a loyal wife since she complies to the wishes of Odysseus, embodies the values accepted in Ancient Greek culture and is presented more thoroughly than Penny. Ergo, the focalization of male protagonists and how context impacts the way audience views female characters accentuate the impact of context on characterizations.

[1] Quora. “Why do we almost always sympathise with and root for the main character” (para 2. line: 7-8) accessed May 4, 2016.

Odysseus in The Odyssey


Male Protagonists

Male protagonists in The Odyssey and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are central to the plot lines, however, are represented differently due to contextual influences. Odysseus and Everett share similar characteristics since their identities are constructed by their homecoming, their cunning, leadership skills, and the issues caused by their tragic flaw (harmatia) of pride. For instance, Mikhail Bakhtin’s argues that Odysseus’ nostos is ever changing, suggesting that completing the journey would equate to Odysseus’ passivity.[1] This explanation implies that Odysseus’ harmatia is necessary for advancing the plot as his actions are romanticised through the heroic feats, epic adventure and the glorification of his actions. However, Odysseus’ revenge tactics in executing the suitors highlight the problematic nature of haramatia that conflicts with heroism. The technique of deus ex machina where Athena’s intervention stopped the escalation to a civil war between the suitor’s families and Odysseus demonstrates how gods were needed to stop the cycle of violence from the Trojan War.

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy, 1773 by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo.
The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy, 1773 by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo.

This implies that Odysseus is unable to function without conflict since his identity is integral with adventure, therefore, he creates chaos. Consequently, it is clear that Ancient Greek techniques and perceptions on heroism played a fundamental role in constructing and justifying Odysseus’ actions. Bakhtin's analysis of Odysseus’ ever-evolving character is replicated through Ulysses’ characterization. The allusion to Dapper Dan is symbolic of Ulysses’ grooming obsession and Odysseus’ pride. This allusion indicates how the film draws on modern comedic qualities through referencing pop culture and folklore to the representation of Ulysses, in juxtaposition to the influence of tragedy in The Odyssey. Additionally, Ulysses’ manipulates his companions to escape jail with the false promise of treasure with his own agenda to stop Penny’s wedding, catalysing a series of complications that occur within the text. This supports Bakhtin's analysis as it demonstrates that haramatia is a critical element that provokes the protagonist to advance the plot. Appropriately, similar qualities corresponding with Odysseus and Ulysses’ character highlights how male protagonists are represented differently due to contextual influences on narrative forms.

[1] Liam Semler, “The Odyssey (2)” Lecture, The University of Sydney, Sydney NSW, March 3, 2016

George Clooney as Everette in O Brother Where Art Thou?



The Odyssey and O Brother, Where Art Thou? reveals that context played a paramount role in the development of female and male roles. Male characters such as Odysseus and Pappy are utilised to comment on ancient and modern political climates. Penny’s adaptability to the Great Depression and the Ancient Greek values attributed to Penelope’s characterization reveals how social expectations shaped the representations of women. Allusions used to the representation of the protagonist haramatias reveal how texts adjust to its context. Essentially, female and male characterizations in adaptions can be seen marginally different or similar to the original text due to changing values within society.

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Sources used


  1. Samuel Butler, “Homer the Odyssey,” United States: Orange Street Press, 1998
  2. SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on The Odyssey.” SparkNotes LLC. 2002. (accessed May 6, 2016).
  3. 3. Peak Oil Blues, “The Invisible Women of the Great Depression,” accessed May 2, 2016.
  4. Quora. “Why do we almost always sympathise with and root for the main character” accessed May 4, 2016.
  5. Liam Semler, “The Odyssey (2)” Lecture, The University of Sydney, Sydney NSW, March 3, 2016
  6. Ted Newell. Five Paradigms for Education: Foundational Views and Key Issues. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
  7. Patrick J. Deneen. The Odyssey of Political Theory: The Politics of Departure and Return. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000.
  8. eHow. “What Values Did the Ancient Greeks Value Highly?” accessed 5th of March, 2016.
  9. Janice Siegel. "The Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Homer’s Odyssey." Mouseion: Journal of the Classical Association of Canada 7, no. 3 (2007): 213-245. (accessed May 5, 2016)
  10. Hayley E. Tartell. 2015. The Many Faces of Odysseus in Classical Literature. Student Pulse 7 (03),
  11. Dailyscript. “O Brother, Where Art Thou? By Ethan Coen and Joel Coen” accessed May 5, 2016.
  12. Barbara Graziosi. Inventing Homer: The Early Reception of Epic. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  13. Blogspot. “The Iliad” accessed May 3, 2016.


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